India beat Australia 2-1 in the 2020-21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy in what is being widely described as their greatest Test series win in history. What defined India’s performance Down Under after the 36 all-out debacle in Adelaide, was the courage and fightback shown by the team as a whole. Facing adversities, injuries, loss of best batsman and the entire bowling unit, controversies, racial abuse, quarantine protocols, India somehow, from somewhere, found strength and self-belief and came back, not once, not twice but several times from difficult and under-pressure situations with new heroes emerging throughout the series.
We look back at 5 of India’s great fightback moments which defined the series.
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1. BUMRAH-ASHWIN COMBINE TO SKITTLE AUSTRALIA FOR 195 AT MCG
India were humiliated in the day and night series opener at the Adelaide Oval. They had been routed for their lowest score in Test cricket - 36 - in the second innings and went on to lose the match by 8 wickets. Obituaries were being written. 4-0 Australia! There was criticism and ridicule from everywhere - the Australian media, former players, commentators, news channels - were all gunning for the throat of the Indian batsmen. The morale was low. To add to their problems, India’s captain and best batsman, Virat Kohli was leaving the shores of Australia to attend the birth of his first child. Mohammed Shami was ruled out of the remainder of the series after an injury.
India needed some inspiration and they needed it early in the big Boxing Day Test at the MCG. And that came from their leading pace bowler and spinner in the first innings. Tim Paine won a good toss and elected to bat first. But Bumrah and Ashwin combined to give India the early breakthroughs and reduced the home team to 38 for 3 before 15 overs were completed. While the fast bowler saw the back of Joe Burns, Ashwin got rid of Matthew Wade and the best Test batsman in the world - Steven Smith.
Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head resurrected the innings and stitched together 86 for the fourth-wicket. India needed to break the partnership. Bumrah came back into the attack and delivered seeing the back of Head. Ashwin returned to dismiss Tim Paine while Bumrah bagged two more - Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon - to bowl out Australia for less than 200 (195). It was a big statement by India. These were the first signs of a fightback. They were hurting and still had belief in their ability to win the series. Their two superstars with the ball - Bumrah - who returned with 4 wickets and Ashwin (three wickets) put their hands up and inspired the entire team for the rest of the series.
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2. THE STAND-IN-CAPTAIN DELIVERS A GREAT HUNDRED
India were in trouble early in their innings having lost both their openers and the rock, Cheteshwar Pujara, with just 64 runs on the board. There was no Virat Kohli. This was the moment of reckoning for India. A couple of more wickets and it was all over for the visitors. Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man! Stand-in-captain, Ajinkya Rahane then produced one of the best hundreds by a visiting batsman in Australia to lead his country’s fightback. He came out to bat at 61 for 2 and forged three match-changing partnerships (52 with Hanuma Vihari, 57 with Rishabh Pant and 121 with Ravindra Jadeja) to put India in the ascendancy.
Rahane scored a brilliant 112 off 223 deliveries helping India to 326 in the first innings. The visitors got a decisive 131-run lead which was enough to put Australia under pressure in the second innings. India went on to record a great win by 8 wickets - one of their finest fightback victories in history. It was Rahane’s best hundred of his Test career and a timely return to form for the middle order batsman. There had been a slump in his numbers in SENA between January, 2018 till the Day and Night series opener in Adelaide during which he had scored just 664 runs at an average of 26.56 with no hundreds and only 4 fifties in 13 Tests. An inspirational hundred from the stand-in-captain became the benchmark of India’s fightback in the series. But no one could predict what was to come in the two Tests to follow.
3. THE GREATEST SAVE IN INDIA’S HISTORY
India plagued with injuries entered the third Test at the SCG without Kohli, Rahul, Shami and Umesh Yadav. Australia dominated the Test and set India a mammoth 407 for a win. India had to bat out in excess of 130 overs in order to save the match. No one gave them a chance. Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill gave the visitors a fine start but India lost three quick wickets including their captain and were staring down the barrel at 102 for 3. To add to their woes, Ravindra Jadeja had dislocated his thumb and would only come out to bat if there was a desperate need.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant led India’s fightback. While Pujara was at his defiant dogged best at one end playing out time and overs, Pant actually went for the target. It was a splendid mix of caution and aggression which helped the pair put together 148 for the fourth-wicket before the dismissal of the wicket-keeper batsman for 97. Pujara followed soon after and India with four and a half batsmen, still needed to bat out in excess of 40 overs to secure a draw.
The two unlikely heroes for India - Vihari and Ashwin - then produced the best batting performances of their careers. Vihari batted with a hamstring injury and put together a match-saving unbeaten partnership of 258 deliveries with Ashwin for the sixth-wicket for his country. He remained unbeaten on 23 but more significantly played out 161 deliveries showing courage, character and determination not to throw away his wicket. Despite the injury and questions about his place in the team Vihari played the most important innings of his career to ensure that India still go to Brisbane with a chance of winning the series. There were calls to throw him out of the XI some even suggesting he should never play Test cricket for India - Vihari put all of that behind him and batted with one purpose - to save the match for his team. And he did.
Ashwin played his part too. He batted for 128 deliveries - the most he has faced in the 4th innings of a Test with severe back pain.
The 131 overs batted by India were the maximum they have batted in the fourth innings of a Test in the last 4 decades. Just to put into perspective, statistically, the monumental achievement of India in managing to draw this Test - there had been 501 instances when a team had been set 350-plus in the 4th innings in Test cricket. On as many as 363 occasions, the team chasing had lost, ie a whopping 72.45%! The team batting fourth had won, drawn or tied only 138 times (with 127 draws), ie only 27.55%. It was the greatest save of India’s Test history.
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4. THE SUNDAR-THAKUR MATCH-CHANGING PARTNERSHIP
More injuries rocked the Indian team and they were without Jadeja, Ashwin, Bumrah and Vihari for the decider at The Gabba where Australia had not lost a Test in over 32 years. No one - not even the best punters in the world - gave India even an iota of chance in the match against a full strength Australian XI. The home team posted 369 in the first innings. India were reduced to 186 for 6 and it looked like Game, Set, Match, Series for Australia.
But this Indian team did not know the definition of ‘Giving-Up’!
Out of nowhere, the two new heroes emerged - one a bowling all-rounder on debut and other a bowler who could bat playing in just his second Test for India. Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur put together 123 runs for the seventh-wicket, frustrating the Australian bowlers and changing the match on its head. Sundar showed the class of a top-order batsman in his patient 62 while Thakur was more aggressive with a 115-ball 67 hammering 9 fours and 2 sixes. India reached within touching distance of Australia’s total and were finally bowled out for 336. The most unlikely of partnerships had brought India back into the match. Once again, when the situation demanded, with their backs to the walls, two Indian players put their hands up and produced the performance of a lifetime.
5. THE GILL-PUJARA-PANT TRIO BREACH THE FORTRESS AND TAKE INDIA TO A HISTORICAL WIN
India were set 328 for a win at The Gabba. They had only chased down a 300-plus score twice in their Test cricket history. Australia had lost a Test in Brisbane for over 32 years. No country, not even Australia, had gunned town a total of in excess of 250 at The Gabba. But this was a new-age Indian team with a different belief and level of confidence.
Shubman Gill, another series-debutant, gave India the platform, with a fluent 91 off just 146 deliveries. He put together 114 for the second-wicket with Pujara off 240 deliveries. While Gill was aggressive, Pujara was at his quintessential defensive best at the other end. He joined hands with Pant at 167 for 3 with India only half-way there. Pujara was solid as a rock and kept the Australian bowlers at bay taking one hit after the other on his body. Pant was circumspect to start with and played to the situation. The pair had put together 61 for the fourth-wicket off 141 deliveries before the New Wall of India was dismissed.
Pant, aware that the assurance at the other end was no longer there, changed gear and counter-attacked. From 34 off 84 deliveries till Pujara’s exit, Pant raced to 89 off 138 leading India to a sensational three-wicket victory in the final minutes of the final day’s play. India had pulled off the greatest heist in their Test cricket history. The fortress had been breached. India had recorded a chase for the ages and with it their second successive series win in Australia - this one, a million times sweeter than the first in 2018-19.
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